Monday, November 29, 2021

Security lockdown in Moscow for Champions League (SN)

Thousands of police patrolled the streets of Moscow on Wednesday amid fears of violence as some 50,000 Manchester United and Chelsea fans descended on the Russian capital for the Champions League final.

Interior ministry troops and riot police wearing black helmets and bulletproof vests could be seen in the area around the Luzhniki stadium near the city centre where the first all-English final was under way.

Apart from a few brawls outside bars in central Moscow, however, the scenes were mostly peaceful as fans, some wearing traditional Russian fur hats and waving banners, thronged Red Square before filing into the stadium.

“We didn't get our drink on to Red Square. The police banned it, but apart from that it's great,” said Manchester United fan Parmy Singh, who flew in on Wednesday and planned to stay up all night to avoid sky-high hotel prices.

As he walked towards the stadium under heavy security, James, another Manchester United fan, said: “It's my first time in Moscow. I find it very friendly. There's a feeling that Moscow's not very friendly from the papers.”

Fans said the high prices of travelling to Moscow had put many supporters off attending the showdown. Others complained about the strict alcohol bans in place as part of elaborate measures to prevent any violence.

Thousands of ticketless Russian and English fans also crowded into Moscow bars to watch the game, with tickets being sold by touts outside the stadium going for 400 dollars (253 euros) just before the start of the match.

“It's so funny. I could never imagine I would watch an all-English Champions League final in Moscow. It's unbelievable,” said Patrick O'Donnell, a 38-year-old Chelsea supporter who was in Moscow on a business trip.

O'Donnell was among more than 500 Chelsea fans cheering in a Moscow pub close to the British embassy. His friend Ian Knot, 42, said: “I couldn't get a ticket so I have to watch it here but I'm so pleased.”

Among the Chelsea supporters at the game were club owner Roman Abramovich, a billionaire playboy who made his fortune in Russia's cut-throat oil business, and ex-KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, one of Britain's most wanted men.

Lugovoi is suspected by British police of the 2006 radiation murder in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko but Russian authorities have refused his extradition or prosecution in Moscow.

The Litvinenko case plunged relations between London and Moscow to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War although there have been some signs that Russia's new President Dmitry Medvedev wants to improve ties.

“Russia is showing all of Europe that it is an open state and has caused no visa problems,” Lugovoi was quoted as saying, referring to an unprecedented order by Medvedev that suspended visa requirements for fans with tickets.

Russian authorities said they were making every effort, including setting up a football pitch for fans on the hallowed cobbles of Red Square and using around 1,000 buses to ferry football supporters around Moscow.

Officials said more than 14,000 security officers had been deployed.

In what appeared to be an isolated incident, Interfax news agency quoted a member of Russia's Manchester United fan club as saying some 50 Russian hooligans had attacked a group of English fans, injuring two of them.

“We've had a couple of isolated reports of disturbances,” said a spokesman for the British embassy, which has worked together with Russian officials on match preparations despite still frosty official relations.

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